Transnistria – Celebrating Independence Day in the Country That Doesn’t Exist
Against a backdrop of over-tourism throughout Europe, there’s a growing number of “contrarian travellers” – offbeat vagabonds, pilgrims of chance, who head East to embark on unmarked journeys. Wandering the lesser-known lands of Eastern Europe, through the bleakest of winters and the greyest of cities, they dream of being surrounded by beautiful and expressionless women listening to 1980’s pop music on tinny mobile-phone speakers, and sitting alongside mafia-esque men drinking leviathan quantities of alcohol. For some, the deepest crevices of the post-Soviet world are the unexpected, and unpopular, promised lands of tourism.
Several post-Soviet “countries” remain mostly untravelled, and to the right mindset, downright exotic. Whilst I’ve delved into these lands, in the strange world of Soviet-o-phile travellers I’m a rank amateur. I’m yet to be mugged in Abkhazia, experience the organised crime utopia of South Ossetia, or be banned from Azerbaijan for entering the Republic of Artsakh. However, for the third time now, I’ve visited the city of Tiraspol, Transnistria – to celebrate a unique Independence Day in a country that kind of doesn’t really exist.
On an early September morning each year in Tiraspol, the small capital city awakes. Locals leave their Soviet-era apartment blocks, known locally as Stalinkas and Khrushchyovkas, to watch a fairly restrained and sombre military parade celebrating national independence. Soon after the parade ends, the streets overflow with traditional peasant clothing, high-heels, and bootleg sportswear. People dance in circles to madly dizzying regional folk music, drink locally produced Vodka and “Cognac”, and eat huge chunks of grilled BBQ meats and organic small-batch produce. It’s unrelentingly, and unapologetically, a real life Eastern European stereotype.
Children play with guns, ride donkeys, and clamber over missile launchers. From one street to the next, Tiraspol is filled with live entertainment and pop-up displays of locally produced small appliances, fur coats, portable electricity generators, fancy bedding, and assorted military hardware. Hand-made nationalistic trinkets share the limelight with loaves of bread decorated with the symbols of communism. This, is Transnistria.
On banners and clothing, the national colours and emblems of both Russia and the USSR can be seen throughout the city. Locals spend Transnistrian Rubles on “I Love Russia” pins, and proudly wear pro-Russia, pro-USSR, and pro-Putin t-shirts. Even the national crest of Transnistria is a colourful throwback to the times of the Soviet Union, featuring a red star, hammer and sickle, corn cobs, grapes, and stalks of wheat, placed with an eye to the old-school communist design language around a rising sun. To put an exclamation point on the post-Soviet Eastern European cliche, Russian flags are flying everywhere.
Clearly, Transnistria is enamoured with Russia. It’s obvious that a shared history has bonded the two nations – not geographically, but surely in the hearts and minds of the locals. Although the 20th century in this region was genuinely complicated (even an abbreviated list of major events and turning points would be too extensive and well beyond the scope of this page), the events that lead to the creation of Transnistria explain why the Russian connection exists to this day.
Squeezed in between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria is over four-thousand square kilometers of land-locked territory. Small enough to cross East-to-West in an hour, but large enough North-to-South to hold half-a-million people, in more than a hundred cities, towns and other settlements. Sharing no borders with Russia itself, during the time of the Soviet Union Transnistria was part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time just prior to collapse of the USSR, it appeared this entire region would become the independent nation of Moldova – encompassing all of Transnistria.
Linguistically and ethnically the make-up of Transnistria differs significantly from the rest of Moldova, and even prior to the Soviet dissolution, tensions had been rising. In one particularly volatile policy, the Moldovan government officially removed Russian as a state language – the commonly accepted lingua-franco of Transnistria – along with the Cyrillic alphabet. More extreme proposals were put forth by various organisations in Moldova, including a radical plan to completely expel all ethnic Russians and Ukrainians from the lands of Transnistria.
With concerns about the increased efforts to marginalise them, activists in Transnistria created a separatist movement. Unwilling to be part of an independent Moldova, on September the 2nd 1990 Transnistria declared their own independence. Relations soured further, and limited armed clashes soon developed into a full-scale war between pro-Moldova and pro-Transnistria groups.
Volunteers and armed forces from Transnistria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia were involved in the conflict. Hundreds of lives were lost on both sides. Notable was the significant Russian military involvement – officially with a neutral stance – but their presence was crucial to the outcome of the war, and by the middle of 1992 a ceasefire agreement was signed.
Since that time the peace has been held – with the assistance of a small Russian peacekeeping force based in a demilitarised zone between Moldova and Transnistria. In 2019, the conflict remains unresolved – yet another of a small number of ongoing “frozen conflicts” that exist throughout the former USSR.
Moldova has completely lost (or abandoned) all effective control over the breakaway region, but officially continues to claim Transnistria as part of their own nation. However, in most regards Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) can now be considered a de-facto independent state. With it’s own Parliament, army, air force, currency, postage stamps, flag, national anthem, and passports (the travel document is orecognised by only three other, also unrecognised, post-Soviet territories), Transnistria has most of what normally defines an independent country.
But, there is one major omission – almost three decades after declaring independence, not a single member of the United Nations recognises the existence of Transnistria – not even Russia. In spite of remaining unrecognised, this year Transnistria will again celebrate another national Independence Day.
People in Tiraspol are friendly and welcoming towards the small number of foreign tourists who choose to visit Transnistria on Independence Day. Invitations to eat and drink are common. Smiling faces and outstretched hands will pull you into communal dancing circles. One older gentleman gifted our small group a large bottle of Vodka, obviously proud and a little excited to be seeing foreign tourists in his city (pre-midday, the gift was conditional upon being immediately opened and consumed, and not wishing to offend we happily obliged). Language barriers not withstanding, this is a day to join in and celebrate.
Although Tiraspol locals are often fascinated by the unfamiliarity of foreign tourists, there’s a certain degree of confusion as to why anyone would actually choose to visit their city. From my Western perspective, it would be obvious to anyone with a modicum of objectivity that visiting Transnistria isn’t for everyone.
There are problems and issues with entering and exiting an unrecognised state. I’m yet to find a travel insurance policy that’s both valid and useful. There’s zero consular representation, from any nation. Foreign credit cards won’t work in Transnistria. Although bringing in cash is essential (Euro, US dollars are best), those currencies are not accepted anywhere other than banks – who will exchange the foreign cash for plastic coins of an unrecognised currency. After three visits I’m unable to find consistent opinions on the safety of the local tap water.
Certainly, there are much more formidable issues for all foreign tourists who enter (and exit) Transnistria.
Back in 2013, I had to negotiate in broken Russian for thirty minutes with two border agents who weren’t going to let me leave Transnistria until I paid a significant bribe. In 2017 and 2018, upon entering Moldova-proper, I needed to visit the government department that deals with refugees, before I was allowed to leave Moldova. In their judgement I’d entered the country across a border they don’t recognise – I needed to either explain my actions, or apply for asylum status. These potential problems are par-for-the-course when visiting Transnistria – but seem to be disappearing with time, and largely dependent upon which border crossings you choose.
The question – is it worth the trouble to visit? Truth be told, on most days of the year Transnistria is pretty boring. Little more than a sleepy version of old-Russia, just a stopover for socially-awkward Soviet-nerds, collecting a rare set of passport stamps before returning to the most boring jobs in the world back in Birmingham.
However, on Independence Day, a completely unique travel experience. Walking around Tiraspol is undeniably surreal, and a lot of fun – after all, this is a street party within a genuine cold-war-era time-warp. I’ll be back again in September 2019, and hopefully in 2020 for the thirty-year celebration.
PS, this year we were the first people in history to catch an Uber to the borders of Transnistria. Big hello to the three lovely ladies I shared the ride with.
PPS, apologies to my regular readers for the lack of updates. Since my last post I’ve been guiding and organising MANY Iran tours, working with other tour organisations, and travelling through Italy, Ukraine, Iran, Oman, and more. I’m currently writing this from Dhaka, Bangladesh. It really means a lot to me that you continue to follow my journey, after all this time I’m just getting started…